Asia's Biggest Rivalries: Where have Singapore's all gone?
Jurong Stadium rocked. Those stone blocks masquerading as modern seats were barely visible beneath shuffling bottoms.
Ah peks sat shoulder to shoulder with ah bengs. Wiry retirees joined jittery gamblers. Husbands brought along wives and children to bolster numbers, keeping it in the family and keeping out the opposition.
April 25th, 1998 was perhaps as close as Singapore football ever really came to a genuine domestic rivalry
It was all about the numbers, a show of strength, us against them, the “us” being the independent community club, the “them” being the armed forces, the Establishment, the elite.
For one night only, there was a chance to take down Goliath and go Biblical for a bit.
And April 25th, 1998 was perhaps as close as Singapore football ever really came to a genuine domestic rivalry.
There were other nights, other teams and other competitions, but the rancour between Tanjong Pagar United and the Singapore Armed Forces FC (now known as Warriors FC) was real.
The Warriors had lifted the title in 1997 and were widely expected to mount a successful defence in 1998.
Between 1997 and 2003, the uniformed sides of Home United and the Warriors won six out of seven titles.
Quite honestly, the “Gahmen” clubs were wonderful for a fledgling competition still struggling to wriggle free from the omnipresent shadow of the Malaysia Cup.
Home and SAFFC were the closest the S.League came to franchises; well organised, reasonably well resourced and comparatively affluent clubs to follow.
They inadvertently played the role of pantomime bogeyman beautifully, the wealthier, domineering autocrats depriving the common man of his share of riches, an easy target to boo and hiss.
That was the stereotype anyway, and a largely unfair one, but stereotypes do a fine job in distinguishing football tribes.
Home and the Warriors were local variations of Manchester United and Liverpool in some respects. Their followers loved them, but didn’t particularly like each other. And their opponents loved to hate them, which fuelled a siege mentality on all sides.
Back in 1998, a uniformed scalp was a treasured scalp.
Plan A: A Singapore league made of Singapore teams
This nascent rivalry was delineated further by the S.League’s original and bold intention to build clubs along community lines; a Singaporean league with only Singaporean teams.
So Gombak United played at Bukit Gombak and were based in Gombak.
Jurong, Sembawang Rangers, Tampines Rovers, Woodlands Wellington and Tanjong Pagar followed a similar community model.
Balestier Central could’ve identified more closely with Toa Payoh and Marine Castle kicked off with one of its many confusing and rootless incarnations (before finally getting it right with Hougang United), but the S.League’s initial simplicity was key to its early success.
Packed venues were the norm. And whatever the size of the club, community or stadium, a capacity crowd was pretty much guaranteed when the Protectors or Warriors came marching in.
On April 25th, 1998, Jurong Stadium was packed beyond its wildest dreams. Painted and contorted faces screamed and abused each other. It was a glorious night, a proper football night.
The Warriors and Tanjong Pagar would go on to contest a close title race, but their early meeting underlined the healthy antagonism.